Angela Catterns’ defection from ABC 702 Sydney to DMG’s new FM station confirms the fears of staff at the public broadcaster four years ago when radio head Sue Howard told them ratings are the only thing that matters.

DMG CEO Paul Thompson is known for his astute market research. DMG’s Nova stations have snared the under forties. Now he’s chasing Generation Jones – people born between about 1960 and 1965 don’t fit in with either the Boomers or Xers. Never heard of them? Have a look at http://generationjones.com. They’re in a category of their own.

DMG is pitching to Generation Jones with Catterns and whoever will join them. They want to capture ABC listeners and their spending power in a move that will cause problems for the ABC from all angles – the relevance of its networks, its programming and its whole ethos and approach to broadcasting.

The ABC has been chasing ratings, but ratings are a commercial imperative. To meet commercial imperatives you need to deliver programming in a commercial style. ABC local radio programs have gone down the commercial road and have enjoyed considerable success at bringing in an audience dissatisfied with music-based FM stations.

But the cost for the ABC has been high. First, there have been the cultural issues. At the ABC’s internal local radio awards, the gong for best promotion went to a giveaway of a free trip to France. The ABC didn’t pay for the prize, but staff feared it was little more than free advertising for a commercial venture in exchange for a freebie to promote the station. ABC television had hugely publicised problems with “half-pregnant” advertorial issues years ago. Will radio go the same way?

Then there’s the dollars and cents cost of commercial style presenters. Their salaries are rocketing under the Sue Howard approach. Not only does this mean that there’s less money left over for production staff and greater pressure on those who are there, but it effectively means the ABC is shelling out for commercial station salaries – without anything like commercial station incomes.

ABC staff aren’t in it for the money. They can be precious, but it’s hard to doubt their commitment to quality public service reporting. They forgo bigger bucks in exchange for independence. When management parachutes in “names” it’s a slap in the face for them.

Something’s got to give. Management loves seeing the ABC up there with the commercial stations in terms of average quarter hour ratings, even if their total listening audience hasn’t changed much.

Commercial media is ruthless. Formats die overnight and staff are axed as stations chase the trends. The ABC doesn’t have the capacity to do that. If an ABC audience crashes, the relevance of local radio will be questioned.

Taxpayers are shelling out to make sure the broadcaster delivers a “unique and comprehensive service,” but management has wandered away from the ABC Charter and into uncharted territory.